Recently, I read an article by Jo Walton at Tor.com, written in response to an article by Claire at The Captive Reader. Both articles addressed the same issue: whether there’s a right age to read a book, and the impact of reading (or re-reading) a book at different ages. The consensus, as touched on by Claire and followed up on by Walton, was that while reading a book too sophisticated for your age might result in what Claire referred to as an “imperfect understanding,” that wouldn’t necessarily stand in the way of enjoyment, or invalidate the experience.
How Important is it to Read Older Science Fiction?
The changing experience a reader might have with the same work at different times in their life brought to mind another discussion that I’ve been following: about the pulp roots of science fiction and how important they are or are not as an introduction to the genre, explored through a back and forth between Gareth L. Powell, posting at SF Signal, and Steve Davidson at Amazing Stories. While Powell understands the urge to cling to older work, he believes that science fiction has moved on, and when a non-science fiction reader asks you for a recommendation, you should suggest something that will appeal to modern sensibilities. Stressing the old over the new, says Powell, goes against the “restless spirit” that has taken science fiction this far.
Davidson argues that – when more than a casual interest in the genre is expressed – the classics should be included. Calling them “badly written” as a reason to not recommend them is unjust, as the focus of older works was on ideas, rather than character, and they should be judged in that context. Davidson sees the divide between older and newer science fiction as unnecessarily divisive, and believes that recommendations should focus on an assessment of individual tastes.
I agree with Powell more than Davidson. Like Davidson, though, I get frustrated with the sometimes dismissive tone used in reference to the classics: I see it as an understandable, if regrettable, failure to appreciate the relationship of the past to the present, that disregards the experiences of many people for whom those works opened worlds of wonder.
What is the Best Age to Read Older Science Fiction?
The impulse to champion and share older science fiction in many cases isn’t as much about reverence, I think, as it is about one person wanting to share an experience with another, in the way fans of science fiction have been sharing their what ifs with each other as long as the genre has existed. It’s a benevolent impulse, but one that doesn’t take into account the most important part of sharing science fiction, which is less about specific works and ideas than it is about celebrating imagination and possibility.
So where does that leave us? I agree with Davidson that individual assessments need to be made, but I’d add to that that the ideas of Claire and Walton and base that assessment primarily on age and experience. As Walton pointed out, not everyone rereads and gets the change to experience different levels of a work, and as Powell said, it’s easy to turn a reader off of an entire genre with a single, misplaced recommendation. What’s needed is to fit the work to the expectations of the reader.
Much older science fiction isn’t going to appeal to adult, modern audiences. Assuming that a new reader isn’t specifically looking for a classic and ready to take it in context, the time to introduce a new reader to older science fiction is when they’re at a point in their life when they’re less likely to perceive its flaws and more likely to take what it has to offer at face value, which is most likely when they’re young. Not understanding a work fully, to echo Claire’s sentiment, is less important than exposure to it, and in the case of the classics, imperfect understanding is a worthwhile trade-off if it’s the best way for them to still be read and enjoyed. Is it important to read older science fiction? It’s important to experience wonder, and want more. If an older work can provide that wonder to a reader, while at the same time laying a groundwork for later, deeper understanding of a genre, then why not? Things change, and works that struggle to be appreciated today will ultimately be relegated to the world of scholars and fans who seek them out, even as they are treasured by those who loved them when they were young.
I would add as a final warning, though, that before dismissing older work as “bad” for whatever reason, one should keep in mind that much of what is new today will be dated tomorrow in ways we can’t now foresee, and all of it exists on an ever-changing cultural and stylistic continuum. China Miéville will one day – if he’s lucky – sit on a dusty shelf with Asimov and Clarke. There is no single point from which to look back and judge – there is no “final” in science fiction, and I think that this was part of Powell’s point. Recognizing that, we should celebrate yesterday and today both, and continue to look to tomorrow.